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DeVos Declines to Use Senate COVID-19 Relief Bill to Weaken Protections for Students With Disabilities

Update: On April 28, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced she will not recommend any waivers to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The CARES Act, the major COVID-19 relief bill Congress passed, included a provision that allowed DeVos to evaluate weakening protections for kids with disabilities to provide relief to schools as they navigate COVID-19. However, DeVos has elected not to ask for changes to laws designed to support students with disabilities. “While the Department has provided extensive flexibility to help schools transition, there is no reason for Congress to waive any provision designed to keep students learning,” DeVos said in a statement, according to NPR.

As Congress debates its next move to provide economic relief in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, one item in the Senate’s latest proposal has caused disability advocates alarm: a provision that could exempt schools from its legal duty to provide an accessible education to students with disabilities.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced a “phase 3” stimulus proposal to the U.S. to mitigate the economic fallout of COVID-19, a new-to-humans respiratory virus that has so far infected more than 15,000 Americans. The proposed package, which has yet to be voted on by the full Senate or the House of Republicans, most famously includes sending stimulus checks to American families earning less than $75,000 a year.

There are many other proposals in the bill, including one that could impact people with disabilities. Page 230 of the proposed $1 trillion economic relief package calls for an evaluation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 within 30 days of the bill’s passage. Section 504 and IDEA were signed into law to guarantee students with disabilities equal access to an education in schools and prevent discrimination.

As written, the bill doesn’t automatically cut resources for education for students with disabilities. It does allow U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to evaluate if requirements under IDEA and section 504 can be loosened “to provide limited flexibility” to schools in the wake of COVID-19. Any such waivers, however, could roll back critical education protections for students with disabilities. Disability advocates rallied around the hashtag #NotThatIDEA on Twitter to call out the proposal.

On March 13, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) outlined in a COVID-19 fact sheet that schools must continue to provide students with disabilities an education as long as schools are providing services to other students, whether that’s online or through other alternative methods. If a school is completely closed and not serving any students, those schools do not have to provide students with disabilities an education during the closure.

McConnell’s proposed relief package has yet to be passed in the Senate or debated in the House of Representatives. Likely the bill will change as Congress hashes out the details before it is signed into law by President Donald Trump. Disability advocates are urging others to contact their representatives to strike the IDEA provision from the proposed bill to protect students with disabilities.

“Now, more than ever, your voices matter – we MUST be loud, resolute, and uncompromising in the need to protect these important education rights,” wrote Disability Rights Florida on Twitter. “Send your Senators and Representative an email now!”

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